Book Review: Hiroshima

HiroshimaHiroshima by John Hersey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I first read Hiroshima, as a junior in high school, my thoughts traveled to images of war torn towns. The violence of Saving Private Ryan had not yet been unleashed, but we knew violence as a concept not a whole. I am a child of the Vietnam generation but only watched the limited news snippets and cultural iconography associated with a miss understood war. The amazing aspect of this fact is that John Hersey has created a piece of literature that presents the ideas of civilian suffering during war, in an almost absolute vacuum of frontline violence. Nowhere does he look at the life of the soldier but instead the microcosm of daily life after the destruction of war. In addition, his background in journalism gives him the tools to present a narrative rich in factual reality not diluted by factoids. Thus, as an adolescent, I was exposed to, the once thought to be collateral, damages of total war. By recreating the daily lives Hiroshima citizens, Hersey takes all readers on a journey of sorrowful bewilderment in the chaotic aftermath of the bombing.

Moving backwards in the novel, one can find the resemblance of natural life as we know it today. In fact, the last statement of the novel involves Father Kleinsorge and the other priest, “tak(ing) a relatively detached view, often discussing the ethics of using a bomb.” Since Hersey comes to the city after the attack takes place, one could imagine this is the first introduction of the priests to the journalist, a group of German Jesuits arguing philosophy in the remains of a conquered people. An excerpt is included to show the point of view expressed by those present and associated with the Roman Catholic Church, “does it have material and spiritual evil as its consequences which far exceed whatever good may result?” This provokes the reader back to a point of reflection that may have drawn the reader into the novella initially. In addition, the purpose may also be to divert the reader back away from the aspect of chaotic humility expressed by the Father early in the story.

As we meet the characters, Father Kleinsorge is calmly reading but is then violently sent wondering about the mission house in his underwear without explanation. Since the novel generated by interviews after the event and written in third person point of view, we are never told what has happened to the priest. It is simply explained as, “for a few seconds or minuets, he went out of his mind.” This stylistic choice of Hersey shows that the author is not present for the act itself but do to the word choice it is simply overlooked by the reader. It reads almost like watching a video of the events. Each scene is limited to the viewpoint of the main character presented but no further insight or analysis of personal motivations is given. When returning the same character again in the next chapter he presents the shambled remnants of his room with some personal insight but very little. Evidence is seen that during the interviewing process Father Kleinsorge was simply talking about the events but not necessary remembering every emotional detail. His actions, in returning to the room, are explained as precautionary for the collection items but also, “weird and illogical.”

His room contained an unopened first aid kit, even though he was bleeding, no indication of his clothes and a briefcase full of documents and money sitting in his doorway. One can only wonder if he stripped himself of his vestments, after leaving behind the briefcase, in a subconscious way of walking away from his responsibilities before coming to, in the garden dressed only in his aforementioned torn underwear. Not to belabor the point; however, it seems almost odd to think of one in their underwear running about the streets of a war zone. This seems to conjure up images reminiscent of the My Lai massacre photos, another moment of civilian decimation at the hands of total war; yet, still 20 years in the future of the first publication.

A large bulk of the novel is dedicated to the chaos of bringing medical attention to the wounded and the lack of general electronic communication in the aftermath of the bomb. It reads with great sadness but at times an apathy overcomes the reader similar in scope to that experienced by Father Kleinsorge when people begin screaming for help in all directions. Many will have seen the death of this magnitude in contemporary news stories. The shock of the dying has been lost over time but the essence of want and selflessness expressed by the priest is worth reading. The relationship of faith mentioned in the final pages gains redemptive traction quickly, as Miss Sasaki converts to Catholicism in the presence of the priest’s faith and the bomb’s destruction. It is at this point one could assume Hersey arrives to tell the story as his facts become more numerous and we find the quoted passage from the RCC report mentioned only seven paragraphs later.

However, this is a smattering comments of childhood obliqueness. Hersey recalls quotes and observances made by the children saved or protected by the priest in the months following the blast. Almost as if saying in the months following the disaster a small generation of children would forget the moment but remember the shared histories revealed. This look at a singular event, with limited impersonal but overly emotional views is an amazing example of what can be done for moments of tragedy.

View all my reviews